March 15 2024 02:54 PM

We moved our calves from hutches into a barn, and while the benefits were many, there were challenges we had to work through, too.

My whole life, we housed calves outside in hutches on top of a terrace. They were usually about 12 feet apart. When I was 13 years old, I started feeding calves regularly after school and on the weekends. Sometimes we would have an upwards of 80 to 90 calves in hutches without many health issues. There were the normal scours cases, occasionally, usually after a change in milk consumption, but it was nothing we couldn’t get a handle on.

Once we moved the milking herd out of the parlor and started up the voluntary milking systems, we had a substantial amount of concrete and roof coverage to use for something other than a holding area and return lanes. At that point, we had made advancements on all aspects of our operations except for calves. We were still raising calves the same way we had been for an extremely long time. We decided to put a foot forward in advancing our calf facilities.

I have been to many farms all over the country and have seen a great many facilities with calf hutches. I have also been to many calf barns, but most of the calf barns I visited have been in the northern part of the United States. You do not see as many in the southern part of the country. It doesn’t get as cold and the calves tend to not get as cold stressed around here. Heat stress is the biggest factor in the South.

We decided to use the extra concrete and roof footage we had to build a calf facility for our preweaned calves. It was wide enough to have two rows of pens, and a majority, if not all, of our calves fit here. We put in more fans that were climate controlled. Each calf gets its own stall with a rather large sand bed in the back and a nice area to walk around and to access their feed and water.

When we first started out in the calf barn, the calves seemed to love it. I was somewhat concerned because they were able to touch noses through the paneling that separated the calves. But for the most part, we didn’t have health issues. Everything seemed to be going along fine. The calves looked healthier, happier, and were gaining weight at a much higher rate. They weren’t fighting the brutal Georgia heat like they were in the hutches outside, which made a huge difference.

After about six months had gone by, we started to see a shift in the health of the calves. We were having a few more health issues and were doing everything we could to stay on top of it as much as we could. Even though the calves were “inside” and out of the weather, weather still seemed to play a big role. We had an extremely wet month close to that sixth month mark. It was humid and damp constantly  the perfect conditions for growing bacteria.

We were treating calves for mainly scours but did have issues with respiratory disease as well. We went into a cleaning frenzy and tried everything we could to get on top of all the issues that we were experiencing. It seemed to be hitting calves at 6 to 16 days of age the worst.

During this month of issues, I had made many phone calls to various veterinarians, nutritionists, field representatives, and so on. We sent stools samples, took blood samples, changed cleaning protocols, and adjusted our treatment protocols. I kept thinking that maybe we should take the calves that were less than 18 days old back out of the barn. I asked that question to many people that I had contacted, and the majority agreed. Colostrum quality, milk consumption, feed consumption, and water consumption had not changed. The only factor that had changed was the placement of calves.

At this point, we decided that we should move the calves back out to the hutches for the first two and a half weeks of life. Following this plan of action, calves went back to normal and the sicknesses we were dealing with went away. That was almost a year ago, and we are continuing this placement protocol.

I have a contact coming in this month to do some bacteria counts within the facility. I would love for all my nursing calf herd to be inside and out of the elements. But as of right now, and with humidity and heat arriving very quickly, I would like to do some testing before easing them back into the barn.

I believe one of our biggest hurdles is air movement. Although we have climate-controlled fans that are almost always on (even in the dead of winter just for some air movement), the way the calf barn was already built is having to push air toward prevailing winds that cause air flow to be reduced as they fight against each other.

Whenever you build new facilities and learn how the animals react to the change, you always figure out what works good for you and what you would have done differently. Some of the things that work well in our barn, in my opinion, is the flow and slopes of the facility for drainage, less heat stress for the calves, and efficiency when feeding them. The cons would be needing more air flow, and I would also make the sand beds smaller. Almost all the calves lay within the back 4 feet of their pens, and the extra footage of sand is not needed.

Overall, the weaning size of the calves seems to be a great deal larger since moving them into the barn. Heat stress can cause a great loss in energy, which in return can create a reduction in weight gain per day. Over the next few weeks, we plan to meet with a couple of different people to see what else we can do for our calves. If we are able to somehow bring them back into a climate-controlled area sooner, that would be preferred, but maybe we will find it is best that they are left in the hutches at that stage of life.

Caitlin and Mark Rodgers

Mark and Caitlin Rodgers are dairy farmers in Dearing, Georgia. The Rodgers have a 400-cow dairy that averages 32,000 pounds of milk. Follow their family farm on Facebook at Hillcrest Farms Inc.